Monday, August 29, 2016

Summer Cobb Salad

August got away from me.  I had plans for more...not fewer...posts this month.  But it was not to be.  Now that I think about it, the whole summer has flown by.  Perhaps yours has too.  And here we are, approaching Labor Day weekend...the official last blast of summer fun.  

Cooking an elaborate meal is probably not what you had in mind for this last relaxing weekend of summer.  Maybe you have plans for a quiet weekend with your family—or maybe a not so quiet weekend with friends—at a cabin....or a lake house.  Or maybe you're plans are to just hang out at home....maybe finishing up your summer project....  Whatever your plans, my recipe today is just the thing for your relaxed weekend.  It requires little cooking...can be expanded or contracted to accommodate any size group....and will make salad lovers and meat lovers alike happy.  It is a summer variation on the classic Cobb Salad.

I first made this salad a few summers ago when I was visiting my best friend.  We love to cook together...  but we also love to talk.  Sometimes our days get away from us and before we know it, it's time for dinner.  I whipped this up on just such an evening.  We enjoyed it by her pool as the sun slipped down over the horizon.  The salad was so pretty and colorful, bathed in the late evening light reflected off the pool, that I took a quick picture.  I was reminded of that easy and delicious meal when that picture showed up in my Facebook memories earlier this month.  It looked so good to me that I wanted to make it again.  

Classically, a Cobb Salad is a composed salad (all of the ingredients are arranged individually on the platter...rather than tossing them all together as for the appropriately named "tossed" salad) that includes cubed/shredded roast chicken (or turkey), crisp bacon, chunks of avocado and tomato, wedges of hard cooked egg and blue cheese. These items are arranged in neat rows on a bed of crunchy greens (most often romaine or iceberg).  The greens and several of the individual components are dressed in a tangy vinaigrette.  It is almost an anti-salad it is so rich and substantial.  I don't think I know anyone who doesn’t like a good Cobb Salad.

My friend is not fond of eggs or blue cheese, so these items didn't make the cut for our summer variation on the Cobb.  But we both love roasted corn.  And roasted corn just happens to be delicious with bacon, tomatoes, and avocados.  I think I may even like this version better than the original.  I have not yet added blue cheese...but I'm pretty certain it would be a fine addition.

I am giving instructions for cooking the chicken the way I like it when I'm having it in a salad...but you may cook it however you please.  Roast it, grill it, sauté it, poach it...  Use white meat or dark...  You can even use a purchased rotisserie chicken if you like. 

The only other cooking required is frying up the bacon...and roasting the corn.  If you prefer to not turn on your oven, the corn can be thrown on the grill...or shucked and boiled on the cob.  Everything else is a matter of slicing and dicing...a little mixing...and then arranging it all.  

To complete the meal, add a loaf of crusty bread....a nice bottle of Rosé...and a simple dessert (ice cream...cookies or brownies...maybe pound cake with fresh fruit....).   Then, sit down...  relax....  and soak up the last rays of the summertime sun as it slips out of sight.

Summer Cobb Salad

I am giving the ingredients and the quantities for the salad I made recently for two.  These quantities were perfect for us...but they might not be perfect for you.  Multiply and alter the quantities and relative ratios of each of the ingredients as you prefer and choose a platter that is shallow and wide.   Start out with a base—spread over the whole patter—of well dressed greens.  As is evident from the pictures, I like to create a symmetrical platter of items...but classically, each ingredient only appears in one strip.  If you have equal quantities of each ingredient, this approach works well...but if you have a lot more of one or two ingredients, laying them out in two places at opposite sides of the platter is very attractive.

1 split chicken breast—about 10 to 12 oz.

1 T. red wine vinegar
1 T. sherry vinegar
1 small shallot, finely diced (about 1 T.)
1/3 c. olive oil
Salt & pepper

1 to 2 T. minced flat leaf parsley (optional)
3 oz. trimmed Romaine hearts, cut cross-wise in 1/2-inch ribbons
1/2 of a large avocado, peeled, pitted and diced
1 large or 2 small vine ripened tomatoes (about 7 oz.), diced or cut into wedges
1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cups (about 7 oz) roasted corn kernels (see note)
3 oz. bacon, sliced cross-wise and cooked until crisp (or simply cook the strips and crumble when cool)

Rub the chicken with a light coating of olive oil and season generously with salt and pepper. Place the chicken in a baking dish and roast in a 450° to 475° oven until the skin is crisp and golden and an instant read thermometer inserted in the thickest portion reads 150° to 155°--about 25 to 30 minutes. (The chicken will easily reach the safe temperature of 160° as it rests.)  As the chicken roasts, regulate the oven temperature to maintain an active sizzle. Remove the chicken from the oven and let sit until cool enough to handle. If desired, deglaze the baking pan with water. Degrease and reserve the resulting jus. When the chicken has cooled, remove the skin and bones and discard.  Dice or shred the meat into bite-sized chunks.  Toss with jus if you deglazed the pan.  Set aside or chill if not using right away.

While the chicken cools, make the vinaigrette and gather/prepare the remaining ingredients.  To make the vinaigrette, place the shallot, vinegars, and a couple of good pinches of salt and some pepper in a bowl and let sit 5 minutes.  Whisk in the olive oil.  Taste for balance and seasoning.  Correct as necessary.  Rewhisk before using.

Season and dress the greens with the vinaigrette and a scattering of parsley.  Spread the greens over the platter.  

Similarly season and dress separately the chicken, corn, tomatoes and avocado.  As you dress them, arrange them in strips on top of the greens.  

Place the bacon in a strip that runs perpendicular to all of the other strips.  

Serve, passing more dressing on the side.

Note: To roast corn, place the corn (in the husk) in a preheated 375­° oven.  Roast for 20 minutes.  Remove from the oven and remove the husks as soon as you are able to handle the corn.  Cool and cut the kernels away from the cob.  A large ear of corn will produce 1 to 1 1/2 cups of kernels. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Pasta with a Creamy Yellow Bell Pepper & Tomato Sauce

Sometimes simplicity is deceptive....  Today's pasta sauce is a good example.  Other than its brilliant...almost neon...color, one might be tempted to pass it by as plain and boring...there just isn't much to see.  The few ingredients are cooked in a straightforward way and then puréed into a smooth and uniform sauce.  Visually, it could probably pass for baby food.  But when you put what turns out to be a rather silken textured sauce in your mouth, you find that it sings with the concentrated flavors of sweet ripe bell peppers and tangy summer tomatoes.   Furthermore, it has a pleasant but unobtrusive kick from a generous pinch of hot pepper well as a few nice aromatic exclamation points from a handful of shards of sweet basil.  It is anything but boring...  The few ingredients surprise with their collective intensity of flavor.

I ran across the recipe for this pasta in one of my favorite pasta cookbooks—Four Seasons Pasta by Janet Fletcher.  There are a lot of pictures in this book, but not one for this recipe.  If there had been a picture, it is likely I would have passed it by.  But since I was scanning titles and ingredient lists (rather than browsing pictures) looking for a late summer recipe, I noticed this one.  I love the red and yellow bell peppers of late summer (the hot house ones available all year pale in comparison).  When I stopped to read the recipe, I was intrigued by its simplicity.  And because it really is different than the chunky, vegetable "sauces" that I gravitate towards this time of year, I decided to give it a try.  I was not disappointed. 

I have altered the original recipe in one respect:  I roasted the pepper instead of chopping it up and adding it raw with the tomatoes.  I did this first and foremost because the final sauce is puréed, but not strained.  I didn't really want bits of tough pepper skins floating around in my otherwise smooth sauce.  Roasting the pepper has the added advantage of concentrating the sweet pepper flavor.  Furthermore, puréed roasted peppers create a velvety smooth sauce.  There really isn't a downside to this change...unless you object to turning on your broiler (or grill).  To this I would say that you can roast the pepper ahead...when you already have your oven or your grill turned on for something else.  Or, if you really object, you could simply follow the original recipe:  Core and seed the pepper and cut it into a quarter-inch dice.  Add it to the pan with the tomatoes.  Cover and simmer until the peppers are tender...about 15 minutes...and purée as directed. 

This simple sauce is delicious on pasta, but I have already been thinking about other ways to use it.  I think it would be wonderful with fish (something hearty like swordfish...or tuna...).  And its simplicity makes it perfect for pooling on a plate and topping with some freshly cooked gnocchi (tossed with a little olive oil or butter) and some shaved Parmesan. 

Pepper and tomato season will easily extend through the end of I plan on making this sauce a few more times before the season is through.  And since I'm certain this sauce will freeze well, I'll probably make an extra batch or two for the freezer.  I think its bright summery presence on the dinner table will be the perfect antidote to a gray and blustery autumn or winter day.

Pasta with a Creamy Yellow Bell Pepper & Tomato Sauce
(Penne Saporite "Il Frantoio")

1/3 c. olive oil, plus more for roasting the peppers
1 large yellow or orange bell pepper (about 8 to 9 oz.)
1 small red onion (about 6 oz.), finely diced
2 large cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
A generous pinch hot pepper flakes (to taste)
1 lb. vine ripened or plum tomatoes
Salt & freshly ground pepper
1 lb. penne rigate or fusilli
12 fresh basil leaves, torn into small pieces
1/3 c. (1 oz.) finely grated pecorino, plus more for passing at the table

Preheat the broiler.  Rub the pepper with a bit of olive oil, place on a small baking sheet or the broiler pan and broil until the skins have blackened and begun to split—2 to 4 minutes on each side.  Cool.  Peel and seed the pepper over a sieve set over a small bowl to catch the flavorful juices.  Cut into an even dice and add to the juices.  Set aside.

While the pepper roasts, heat 1/3 cup of olive oil in a large skillet over moderately low heat.  Add the onion along with a pinch of salt and sweat until very soft, about 10 to 15 minutes. Add the garlic and hot pepper flakes and cook briefly until the garlic is fragrant.

While the onion cooks, prepare the tomatoes.  Core the tomatoes.  If using plum tomatoes, halve them lengthwise.  If using vine ripes, halve them horizontally (through their equator).  Scoop out the seeds into a sieve set over a small bowl (to conserve the juices).  Discard the seeds.  Using a large-holed grater set on a plate or pie pan, grate the tomatoes by holding the cut side of the tomatoes against the grater and grating until just the skin remains in your palm.  Add the grated tomato pulp to the tomato juices. 

When the onions and garlic are ready, add the tomato pulp—along with a few good pinches of salt—and simmer gently until the sauce has thickened slightly (about 10 to 15 minutes). 

Add the peppers, cover and simmer gently to blend the flavors and finish softening the peppers—about 5 to 10 minutes more—and adding a splash of water if the sauce seems dry or tight.

Transfer the contents of the pan to the blender cup (either a traditional blender or an immersion blender) and purée until smooth, adding water in small increments if the sauce is too thick to move well in the blender (see note).  

Scrape the sauce back into the sauté pan and taste for salt & pepper.  Keep warm while you cook the pasta. 

Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil over high heat.  Add the pasta and cook until al dente.  Set aside 1 cup of the pasta water, then drain the pasta.  Add the pasta to the sauce and toss to coat—adding enough pasta water to create a fluid sauce that coats and clings to the noodles.  Add the basil and the cheese and toss to combine.  Add more pasta water if needed.   Serve immediately, passing cheese separately. 

Serves 4 to 6.

  • I prefer to wait to purée the sauce until I'm cooking the pasta so I can use pasta water to thin the sauce in the blender (if necessary).
  • This may seem like a very small amount of sauce...but it is really just perfect.  Pasta should be sauced so that there isn't a pool of sauce left on the plate when you are finished...rather, you should finish the last bite of pasta with the last bit of sauce.  That said, if you like more sauce, simply increase the recipe so that the pasta is sauced to your liking.

Monday, August 8, 2016

A Simple Salad of Zucchini, Corn & Arugula with Lemon Vinaigrette

I have never understood why some people don't like leftovers.  In my house, leftovers lead to the discovery of new favorites all the time.  This summer, the presence of some leftover roasted corn kernels...and a leftover lemony vinaigrette...brought about the "creation" of a simple summer salad of nothing more than roasted corn, raw zucchini, arugula and the aforementioned vinaigrette.  

The vinaigrette (from Suzanne Goin's Summer Succotash Salad in her book Sunday Suppers at Lucques) is what sets this streamlined little salad apart.  It is admittedly very lemony—some might consider it to be out of balance—but as I discovered when I made Goin's succotash salad, it is just the thing to set off fresh midsummer produce.  I figured it would be equally delicious on my corn and zucchini salad:  I always knew that lemon was particularly good at brightening the subtle flavor of zucchini...and that an excessively peppery bunch of arugula could be magically tamed by a generous dose of lemon...  Still, I was surprised when I tossed these few ingredients into a bowl with my roasted corn (always delicious with zucchini and arugula) at the abundance of flavor.  

Other than the tangy vinaigrette, what makes this salad special is in fact the small number of elements.  Sometimes it is so tempting to just continue to add more...particularly this time of year when there are so many delicious fresh things to eat.  But restraint is almost always a good idea.  I admit that I have expanded this salad on one occasion (to make a more substantial, entrée-appropriate, salad) by tossing in a handful of salty Feta and piling it all on top of a platter of sliced vine ripened tomatoes.  It was delicious this way too.  But I encourage you to try it in its simplest form first....if for no other reason than to experience just how good such a small number of ingredients can be.

I have made this salad on multiple occasions.  It makes a fine vegetable side at dinner (some may have spotted it next to the tart in my previous post).  I think it would be particularly good with fish...or chicken....   And it is perfect for lunch...with a cheese quesadilla...or a grilled cheese...or that big platter of sliced tomatoes with Feta.... 

I have enjoyed it so much that I have started keeping a container of roasted corn on hand...sort of an "on purpose" leftover.  I don't know why I never thought to do this before.  I love summer corn salads.  Now, I can whip up this—or another favorite—at a moment's notice.   So don't throw away that last little bit of vinaigrette or sauce, or those few remaining roasted or blanched vegetables...or that last spoonful of rice or couscous.  These things can always be turned into your next delicious meal.  You never know when you'll come up with a new favorite.

Corn & Zucchini Salad with Lemon-Shallot Vinaigrette

For each person:
1 1/2 to 1 3/4 oz. zucchini (preferably from a very small zucchini—less than 3 oz.—so that the seed cavity will be less developed and the flesh dense and firm)
1/2 c. (2 3/4 to 3 oz.) roasted corn (see note), chilled
1 T. Lemon-Shallot Vinaigrette—more or less, to taste
1/2 oz. arugula

Using a mandoline slicer, slice the zucchini very thinly lengthwise (less than 1/16th inch thick, if possible).  Place in a small bowl along with the corn and season to taste with salt & pepper.  Drizzle in the vinaigrette and toss to coat.  Add more vinaigrette if the vegetables seem dry.  Taste and correct the seasoning with salt, pepper and more vinaigrette as necessary.  Add the arugula, toss well and plate. 

Notes & Additions:
  • To roast corn, place the corn (in the husk) in a preheated 375­° oven. Roast for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and remove the husks as soon as you are able to handle the corn. Cool and cut the kernels away from the cob. A large ear of corn will produce about 1 cup of kernels.
  • Sliced vine ripened tomatoes—Slice, season and fan on plate. Top with salad.)
  • Feta (3/4 to 1 oz. per person)—Crumble and add with arugula...or sprinkle over plated salad.

Lemon-Shallot Vinaigrette

1 T. finely diced shallot
3 T. freshly squeezed lemon juice, plus more to taste
1/2 t. kosher salt
5 T. olive oil

Place the shallot, 3 T. lemon juice, and 1/2 t. salt in a bowl and let sit 5 minutes.  Whisk in 5 T. olive oil.  Taste for balance and seasoning.  Rewhisk before using.

Makes about a half cup of vinaigrette.  Store, tightly covered, in the refrigerator.  Bring to room temperature before using.

(From Sunday Suppers at Lucques by Suzanne Goin)